The Education of a New Engineer

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4745 Glenway Avenue, Cincinnati, Ohio 45238-4537

The sight of Dan Warren, Case expert from White Pigeon, Michigan, shouting at me will remind me not to make a certain serious mistake. On July 19, 1997,1 was exhibiting my 65-horsepower Case engine, Serial Number 35654, at the Will County Threshermen's Association reunion when Dan strode toward me, his voice raised.

I am a novice when it comes to running an engine. By that Saturday, I had conquered the jitters I had felt when the show opened on Thursday and was confidently guiding my Case around the grounds. This was only the second time I had exhibited my engine and the first time 1 had worked the levers. In 1996, at the Central States Threshermen's Reunion near Pontiac, Illinois, I had simply observed while steam experts John and Jim Haley put my Case through her motions. The Haleys had completed major restoration work on my engine at their shop near Odell, Illinois, and were interested in seeing how well she would perform. I watched and learned. In 1997, at the Will County thresheree, I did more than observe; I ran the engine.

With the help of Mike Garity of Plainfield, Illinois, I drove around the grounds. Along the crest of the hill, giant oaks overhung the line of parked engines. The flea market was spread like a picnic in the dappled shadows of the woods beyond. 'Spectacular' was the best word to describe the view of the valley with its wheat fields. There, a thresher was belted to an engine sending puffs of black smoke toward the horizon. The postcard-perfect threshing scene recalled the hard but happy past.

I had fallen into a peaceful feeling which contrasted with the anxiety of Thursday. On that day, Jim had told me it was time for me to learn the levers. I knew that the throttle was tight, so I gave it a strong tug. I thought I destroyed the governor. In an instant, I had opened the throttle wide, and the nut at the top of the Judson governor had come loose. Jim closed the throttle before worse things happened. The governor had just been rebuilt, and the nut had not been attached securely. Jim repaired and adjusted the governor while assuring me that I had done nothing wrong.

Earlier that morning, Jerry of Jerry's Video Productions in Wichita, Kansas, had called Jim 'Mr. Steam.' Sue Haley, Jim's wife, laughed when Jerry coined that title, but she acknowledged that her husband is a steam-engine pro. I felt honored to be tutored by Mr. Steam, but I made mistakes because I was afraid I would make mistakes. My nerves were as jumpy as the governor, and I felt as much pressure as the boiler.

John Haley would not be on hand until Saturday, and Jim could not attend Friday's show. On Friday, I would be on my own. Late Thursday, Jim, taught me what to do before leaving the engine overnight. At one point, he slowly rotated the crankshaft until the connecting rod was lined up the way he wanted. 'What is that for?' I asked. 'Oh, that's just my signature,' Jim said. 'I always leave my engines with the connecting rod in that position.'

I said goodbye, drove to Kankakee, devoured a chicken dinner, and hit the hotel bed. I couldn't sleep. The next morning, I would be responsible for a large engine at a public rally. What if something should go wrong?

Friday dawned hot and humid. I wore new overalls to the showg rounds. To stifle my rising panic, I sauntered around my Case and pretended to check this and that hoping I was coming across as one accustomed to running an engine. Dawn Sommers, an experienced engineer from Lindenwood, Illinois, brought me to my senses. 'Your overalls are too clean,' she said. 'You need some grease spots and some dirt.' Her comments reoriented my thinking. I was obviously a novice. I could not bluff anyone into thinking I was a professional steam engineer and had no business trying to do so. Besides, every engineer was once a novice, and I would lose no pride in being one now. Little did I suspect, however, how alarming my novitiate would be.

I told Dawn and her husband Joe, an expert engineer as well as a Civil War buff, that I would be taking my time to be sure I was right before doing anything. While I was talking with the Sommers family, a man named Mike Garity told me he knew how to run a 65 Case. From his conversation, I could tell he was not exaggerating. I asked if he would help with my engine, and he agreed. Throughout Friday, he proved he was a conscientious engineer.

I stayed true to my word and moved slowly. As Jim had instructed me on Thursday, I studied the position of the connecting rod to know what to expect when working the reverse lever and throttle. I constantly checked the level of the water in the glass, and I held the pressure to 125. The boiler never had to pop off. Each time that the green and white crank-disc spun in response to my command, I felt a fascination for the mechanical genius which went into designing such an engine. With the excitement of running my Case, I barely noticed that the afternoon temperature was 96 degrees with the humidity also in the high nineties. That evening, lightning, thunder, wind, and rain brought the show to a temporary halt. On the way to my hotel, I felt pride that I had made no glaring mistakes all day. I slept soundly.

Saturday began pleasantly with comfortable temperatures and low humidity. Dan Warren removed my boiler's filler-plug pipe because, on Friday, Mike had noticed a slight sprit zing of steam there. Dennis Christiansen, whom Album readers will recognize as the Advance-Rumely man from Peotone, Illinois, brushed plumbing compound on the threads of the pipe, and Dan replaced the filler plug. It gave no more trouble. Next, Dan and Joe Sommers began to repair the governor. On Friday afternoon, steam authority Mark Offerman of Kankakee, Illinois, had tested my engine on the sawmill. The Judson had surged so much that the engine had to be unbelted. Dan and Joe found that, if the speed-regulating hand screw were opened past a certain point, the governor would become disconnected. On most governors, the hand screw cannot be turned that far. Joe and Dan adjusted the governor until it served its purpose.

In the parade later that day, I worked the levers while Mike steered. John Haley was on the grounds and said it looked to him as though I were handling the engine fine. It took no greater compliment to boost my self-esteem. Mike and I were guiding the engine down the hill toward the valley where we were to belt to a corn sheller. Halfway down the hill, I saw a tractor coming. I thought the driver would stop to permit us to pass, but he did not. As he crossed in front, I assumed he might speed up to clear the way, but he did not do that, either. I suddenly realized that he was stopping directly in my path. From my vantage point, the tractor appeared to be about eight to ten feet ahead of my smokebox door, although the distance probably was greater. I threw the reverse lever in the center of the quadrant and closed the throttle to avoid a collision. Either the tractor driver never saw me, or he thought that my steam engine could stop as easily as his tractor.

Thank heaven, I saw and heard Dan Warren. I could see him striding, almost running, toward me, the wide brim of his straw hat catching in the wind. He cupped his hands like a megaphone and shouted, 'Never stop an engine on a hill! Move it!

In a split second, I remembered that cardinal rule, which I had memorized when studying turn-of-the-century books for steam traction engineers. If the boiler is pointed downhill, the water tends to rush forward, exposing the crown sheet to the intense heat of the fire. In the best possible scenario under such circumstances, the crown sheet's fusible plug of soft metal will melt, causing the steam and superheated water to flood into the firebox. In a worse scenario, the crown sheet will blow down. This and more came back to my recollection instantaneously.

Between five and ten seconds had elapsed from the time the tractor began to, cross my path until Dan shouted. I yelled at Mike, 'Let's go!' He cranked the steering wheel hard to the right while I threw the reverse lever into position and opened the throttle wide. We missed the tractor.

When the engine was parked on level ground, I jumped off the platform and walked over to talk to Dan. He tried to apologize for yelling, but I said, 'Yell at me all you want! I came over here to thank you for yelling.' Dan told me that, in the situation I had faced, I should have kept the wheels revolving, even if that had meant backing uphill. Movement in any direction keeps water sloshing over the crown sheet. I am grateful to Dan for the lesson. The next time I am tempted to stop the engine pointed downhill, the memory of Dan Warren shouting at me will keep me and others safe.

Aside from my lapse of good judgment, I enjoyed the Will County show. Years from now, I will recall it with the nostalgia we always feel for the first time we tried and for the most part succeeded.